The college admissions process can be stressful enough for the average family. However, college-related anxieties are often compounded when learning needs are present.

In our experience, we have found that the two most frequent sources of consternation revolve around the disclosure of a learning disability and the procurement of learning accommodations. The following information should help assuage fears on both fronts.


graduate_graduationIt is important to know that admission and disability offices are not allowed to discuss prospective students, so revealing your learning issues to a disability office, in particular, will not impact your admission prospects.  That said, the consequences of alerting an admissions office to your disability will vary across colleges.  Some institutions, including many in the uber-selective Ivy League, are not particularly accommodating to LD students. However, negative consequences should ultimately prove irrelevant because any college assigning admission penalties to LD students would not present a good fit anyway.  At other institutions, disclosing a learning disability can actually bring advantages. For example, a learning disability may explain a relatively low grade or test score or provide applicants an opportunity to showcase their hard work and/or to discuss how they overcame learning-related challenges. In these cases, LD students can increase their odds of admission. In general, College Transitions advises students to disclose their learning disabilities and to discuss within their application how their experiences as an LD student have made them more adaptable, more resilient, and more capable of adding diversity to a particular college.

Accommodations for testing

Public school students identified with a disability or medical condition that impacts learning are supported throughout their K-12 experience via one of two legal documents: an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a less comprehensive 504 Service Agreement. Extended time on school-based assessments is a relatively commonplace accommodation for students with learning disabilities, Traumatic Brain Injury, emotional needs, or ADHD. However, it is under the purview of the companies who run the SAT and ACT to decide if these school-based accommodations are truly necessary for their exams.

The application process

On both the SAT and ACT, students with special needs can apply for 50% extended time or even 100% extended time in extreme cases. The application is made through your high school’s guidance department which is responsible for providing documentation that demonstrates the need for extra time. Your counselor will fill out a form giving a condensed account of the child’s history. When were they identified with a disability? How long has extended time been provided through their IEP or 504? Has there been a recent reevaluation by a school psychologist to confirm the continued need for extended time?

The vast majority of initial applications are approved, with the College Board giving the thumbs-up to roughly 80% of those who apply and the ACT with a slightly more stringent 75%. Those numbers ultimately end up even more favorable, as many of those initially denied resubmit with additional documentation and eventually triumph.

Both testing companies will most heavily scrutinize instances where a student was not identified with a disability until high school or when the provision of extended time was added at the 11th hour to an existing IEP/504. Each is aware that having an extra 90 minutes or more can constitute a significant advantage, and want to make sure that savvy students and their families aren’t trying to game the system.

If you are approved

Get ready for a long day of testing.  In the case of 50% extended time, students will be enduring 5 full hours of analogies, exponents, and meticulous bubbling with a number-2-pencil. Students in the extended time room who finish early must nevertheless stay for the duration of the testing block. This, however, is but a small price to pay for those who genuinely need the extra time.

Accommodations for college

Students with significant learning disabilities MUST consider learning support services as one of the most important factors in their college search. There are many colleges and universities that offer minimal to almost no assistance. On the other end of the spectrum, there are schools that will allow students to take exams orally, grant extended time, and provide free tutoring. Some institutions even offer structured programs specifically tailored for students with disabilities.

Securing support

During the K-12 experience, students with disabilities are guaranteed appropriate accommodations through IDEA, a federal law. IDEA does not apply to post-secondary schools, therefore the only mandate schools are required to follow comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act which primarily protects the physically handicapped.

Accommodations are granted on a case-by-case basis and are almost entirely at the discretion of the college’s Office of Disability Services. To improve your case, it is essential that disability documentation be current and conclusive—a specific diagnosis should be provided and recommended accommodations should be clear.

Before you apply

Consider your unique circumstances and educational needs, and then do your homework on which institutions might present a solid fit. Afterward, speak directly with the coordinator(s) of disability support services (titles sometimes vary) at each prospective school to learn about eligibility requirements. Seek guidance from your parents, but make the call yourself, if possible.

If you have a disability, the development of self-advocacy skills is paramount to succeeding in college. Every student should understand the nature of their disability and be able to articulate its impact on his/her learning process. In a public high school, it is incumbent upon the teaching staff to address the student’s needs and make accommodations. Those tables turn 180 degrees in college as the onus now falls squarely on the student’s shoulders.

Parents, as you assist your teen through the complexities of the application and transition process, make sure not to lose sight of the larger task—helping your child to assume ownership of his/her education. After all, being granted accommodations is one challenge. Taking advantage of them is quite another.

For a list of colleges with an extensive array of services to help students with learning disabilities, visit our Build Your College Knowledge page.


Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.